Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia's Most Popular Music

By David, Bettina | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Dangdut Stories: A Social and Musical History of Indonesia's Most Popular Music


David, Bettina, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Dangdut stories: A social and musical history of Indonesia's most popular music

By ANDREW N. WEINTRAUB

Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 258. Plates, Figures, Musical Notations, Bibliography, Index.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463413000209

Ethnomusicologist Andrew Weintraub's Dangdut stories is the first comprehensive study of dangdut, 'Indonesia's most popular music', as the title rightfully claims. Given dangdut's enormous popularity and sheer inescapable aural presence in the daily life of modern Indonesia, it is in fact remarkable that it has taken so long for it to be recognised as a subject worthy of serious scholarly attention. However, one may wonder if this academic neglect somehow reflects dangdut's longstanding reputation of being a debased commercial music genre without any sophistication or originality--cheap music catering for the trivial tastes of the lower classes. Weintraub's work is the first volume dedicated fully to dangdut, covering its multiple musical, aesthetic, social, and political dimensions. As such it is a long overdue contribution to the study of Indonesia's enormously rich contemporary musicscape. This was quickly recognised in Indonesia itself: this spring, the Indonesian publisher Gramedia published an Indonesian translation of Dangdut Stories entitled Dangdut: Musik, identitas, dan budaya Indonesia.

Weintraub presents his rich account of dangdut's historical development up to its current position within mass-mediated commercial popular culture in the form of different 'stories' about the genre, while modestly acknowledging that these stories are inevitably 'incomplete and selective' (p. 233). His approach, which links an exploration of dangdut's musical origins and developments as a hybrid genre, influenced mainly by Indian, Malay, Western, Middle Eastern and local music styles yet distinctively Indonesian, with an analysis of it 'as a political economy of contested symbols' that mediate 'meanings about social relations in modern Indonesian society' (p. 28), sets a high standard for future 'stories' on the subject.

The first 'story', the Introduction, is a lively array of short ethnographic clips from different social sites where contemporary dangdut is performed: from TV shows and political campaign rallies to highly eroticised spectacles and ritual celebrations.

The evocation of these contrasting atmospheres, and the multiple meanings associated with these diverse social sites, in which dangdut is an important part of contemporary Indonesian public life, is followed by an overview of the study's theoretical and methodological framework. Weintraub locates his 'stories' 'within a range of broader narratives about class, gender, ethnicity, and nation in post-independence Indonesia' (p. 11), arguing 'that not only is dangdut a vivid reflection of national politics and culture, but that dangdut as an economic, political, and ideological practice has helped to shape people's ideas about class, gender, and ethnicity in the modern nation-state of Indonesia' (p. 13).

The second and third chapters examine popular claims about dangdut's supposed origins in the Malay music of the Deli region in North Sumatra (Melayu Deli), and traces musical developments of the Orkes Melayu (Malay Orchestra) music of the 1950s and 1960s to a kind of 'proto-dangdut' (p. 72) that would eventually evolve into what came to be its current form.

Chapter four offers a detailed analysis of dangdut's emergence in the 1970s as a distinct genre within a broader context of articulating the rakyat ('the people') in Suharto's New Order Indonesia. It combines an account of Rhoma Irama's important role in the history of dangdut with a compelling exploration of dangdut's articulation with, and its constitution of the rakyat: From the 1970s onward, media discourse presented dangdut as the supposed authentic voice of the rakyat--the 'masses'.

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